miércoles, 31 de octubre de 2012

The Stranger In My Life by Janet Holt and Helen Parker

“Sorry, please look after the animals” was scribbled on a note that Fred pinned to a door. It was intended for the eyes of Janet Holt, who had helped out on Fred’s farm for years and had become his business partner. Presumably, Janet heeded the message. The word “presumably” may seem strange, but it is relevant because the note was read during a four day period in March 1976 that became elided from Janet’s memory. For thirty-four years, she had no recollection whatsoever of what transpired in those days and it is the search for the story of that blanked out time that forms the centrepiece of Janet Holt’s autobiography, The Stranger In My Life.

At one point, late in the book, a misprint tells us that her dogs have “tales wagging with excitement”. Janet had always been close to animals and loved to care for them. And if the animals described in the book – the dogs, horses, cattle and pigs in particular – could in fact tell their tales, then we would know for sure that Janet did in fact heed the note and remember to look after them. In the absence of their first hand witness, we must rely on Janet’s perhaps incomplete account, reconstructed with therapist help more than three decades after the event.

The Stranger In My Life begins with a conventional, perhaps quiet childhood. Janet Holt’s interest in animals was manifest from an early age, and by ten she had Lucky, her own pony. A rural setting in a village near New Mills in Derbyshire in the north of England offered her an excellent setting to pursue her interest. And then Janet got to know Fred Handford, a farmer who in the nineteen sixties still ploughed with shire horses. Janet helped on the farm and soon became skilled in animal husbandry, milking, pig feeding, mucking out and the like.

Janet wanted to pursue this outdoor life, but her parents insisted she get a real job, so she eventually became a clerk in a New Mills legal firm. Janet’s dependability, interest and enthusiasm allowed her to combine a full time desk job and the farm work she loved. Indeed, a financial arrangement with Fred saw her become a partner in the business.

And then, in 1976, in her mid-twenties, Janet suffered a kind of mental and physical collapse. Four days disappeared from her life and her business partner Fred disappeared from her and everyone else’s life, having left what was interpreted as a suicide note. But then, there never was a body…

Janet took over the farm, but needed to continue with the paid work. In many ways she became a stranger to herself, since she left herself no time to reflect, relive events. A career and a farm, plus sleepless nights and recurring nightmares seemed to leave little time for anything apart from the here and now. And by then that included an affair with her boss from the legal firm, an arrangement that was to last twenty years. The four days around Fred’s disappearance remained stubbornly blank, but ever dominant. In any case, just how much do we know of ourselves? Given the task, could any of us recall the events of a particular week in our lives well enough to relive them? But in Janet’s case, the emptiness of the missing time continually returned to dominate the present.

Years later, after serving a prison sentence and with the help of a loyal friend and a therapist, Janet Holt attempted to relive those days with drastic results. But even then the story remained incomplete. The affair with the boss had lasted all those years and had ended in acrimony. Janet had never been afforded status above the mistress used for sex, and she had shared that status with others in her boss’s life. Scorned, she exacted revenge where it hurt the man the most, in his wallet, but she paid the price for the fraud. Her time inside did nothing to alleviate the pressure still exerted by those missing four days from two decades before, but it did help to identify new priorities for her life, and eventually an attempt to relive the trauma materialised. Once through proved to be less than adequate as complication compounded complication and in the process Janet, the storyteller of her own life, seems to meet a stranger she knew only in nightmares, a person who lived those four missing days.

The Stranger In My Life is an autobiography. Its style is matter of fact, its language transparent and often deceptively simple. But the content is stranger than fiction, revealing a person who became a stranger to herself, her very existence denied. There is an immediacy that brings the past to life, though never literally, and it is a past that still might not have fully revealed itself. We have to believe what Janet tells us, but still we are never sure of events. “Sorry, please look after the animals” is what Fred’s note said, but it is only the animals themselves who could tell us the detached detail of whether Janet did as she was asked.

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